The Idea in Brief
Jesus compared his death to Jonah, who was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights (Matt 12:40). Jonah had related his ordeal not only in terms of having been swallowed by the great fish but also as having been "at the roots of the mountains" (Jonah 2:6); that is, Jonah stated that "the earth with its bars was around" him in the confines of Sheol (Jonah 2:6), because he was physically dead in the belly of the great fish. That is, Jonah was not in the ground (the grave), but his body was under water and his soul was in the heart of the earth (and thus in Sheol).
Peter indicates that Jesus too was in Hades (Acts 2:27 and Acts 2:31), which is Sheol in the LXX, and Paul indicates that Jesus was "in the lower parts of the earth" (Eph 4:9). In other words, like Jonah, Jesus was in the belly of the earth (Sheol) for three days and three nights.
The comparison to Jonah avoids ambiguity with the ground, because the body of Jonah was not buried in the ground when he entered Sheol, which in the Hebrew Bible is often equated with "the pit" in the ground where the human corpse is laid; thus the account of Jonah enables us to understand that Sheol includes some location "in the heart of the earth" as Jesus said (or to use Jonah's words, "at the roots of the mountains"). Thus Jesus entered the same place as Jonah (Sheol/Hades) for three days and three nights.
Finally, Jesus ate the Passover with his disciples in the early hours of the Day of Preparation, which was late evening (because this Hebrew day had begun at sunset). During the midnight hours He was betrayed and arrested. That is, within 12 hours (on the same Day of Preparation) he was hanging on the cross, where He died before sunset that began the actual Passover. Please see the illustration, below.
The Thursday here was the Day of Preparation, and therefore the Passover (which starts the First Day of the FEAST of Unleavened Bread and is considered an automatic Sabbath day) had began at sunset on Thursday and continued until Friday evening, when the "normal" Sabbath had begun. Thus the Passover (First Day of the FEAST of Unleavened Bread) combined with the "normal" Sabbath created a 48-hour Sabbath, since the Passover on this particular year had occurred on the very day just before the "normal" Sabbath.
In other words, the body of Jesus lay in the grave for three days and three nights while at the same time his soul remained in Sheol/Hades for three days and three nights.
Jesus ate the Passover meal with his disciples on the late evening of Wednesday, which were the first few hours of the Day of Preparation, which had begun at sunset. That is, in the Hebrew Bible there are two evenings: one is late afternoon, and one is early night.
Exodus 12:5-6 (NASB)
5 Your lamb shall be an unblemished male a year old; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6 You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month, then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to kill it at twilight.
The Hebrew phrase "at twighlight" is literally, between the evenings (בֵּין הָעַרְבָּיִם). Thus sunset/twilight occurred between the evening (late afternoon) and the evening (of early night). We see the same dichotomy of evenings in the Gospel accounts.
For example, the following passage is clear to indicate that the second meaning of evening is in mind.
Mark 1:32 (NASB)
32 When evening came, after the sun had set, they began bringing to Him all who were ill and those who were demon-possessed.
We see the same dichotomy of evenings in the Gospel of Matthew. The following two verses in the same context provide Evening #1 (late afternoon) and Evening #2 (early night), respectively.
Matthew 14:15 (NASB)
15 When it was evening, the disciples came to Him and said, “This place is desolate and the hour is already late; so send the crowds away, that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
Matthew 14:23 (NASB)
23 After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone.
In other words, Jesus fed them before sunset (Evening #1), and after sunset, he went to pray by himself (Evening #2).
So consistent with the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament uses the same idea of two evenings: one is the late afternoon, and one is the early night. As the following will show, this confusion has contributed to the misconception that Jesus was crucified on Friday, which is NOT supported by the Scripture.
Matthew 26:20 (NASB)
20 Now when evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the twelve disciples.
Jesus was in the upper room during Evening #2 (early night) on the 14th of Nisan with his disciples eating the Passover meal, which as just noted was the first day of Unleavened Bread (also known as the Day of Preparation). It a technical sense, Jesus ate the Passover on the precise day of the 14th of Nisan, but not at the end of the day as was common; instead he ate the meal almost 18 hours before most people ate the meal toward the end of the day (sunset). So by the time daylight broke on the 14th of Nisan (Thursday), Jesus was going to be carrying his cross to Golgotha, so that he would become the Passover Lamb of God that was to be sacrificed before sunset.
So, we read the following in the Gospel of Matthew regarding the eating of the Passover meal on the first day of Unleavened Bread -
Matthew 26:17 (NASB)
17 Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do You want us to prepare for You to eat the Passover?”
Sunset had already passed (Evening #1), and the first day of Unleavened Bread was therefore the 14th of Nisan according to Moses.
Exodus 12:18 (NASB)
18 In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month at evening.
So the 14th of Nisan was the first day of Unleavened Bread, however, the following day (15th of Nisan) was the first day of the FEAST of Unleavened Bread, which was an automatic Sabbath.
Leviticus 23:6 (NASB)
6 Then on the fifteenth day of the same month there is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.
In other words, the first day of Unleavened Bread (14 Nisan), when Jesus ate the Passover meal with His disciples, was different than the first day of the FEAST of Unleavened Bread (15 Nisan). This confusion has also contributed to the misconception that Jesus was crucified on Friday, which is NOT supported by the Scripture.
In order to close the circle we read the following:
John 18:28 (NASB)
28 Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas into the Praetorium, and it was early; and they themselves did not enter into the Praetorium so that they would not be defiled, but might eat the Passover.
This verse is very explicit that Jesus had to be crucified on the Day of Preparation, because at sunset the actual Passover would begin (which, as just noted, would be the first day of the FEAST of Unleavened Bread and thus an automatic Sabbath). The Jewish leaders did not want to defile themselves by coming into contact with the Roman Praetorium, because the Passover would start at sunset.
In summary, the plain and normal reading of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament indicate that Jesus was hanged on a cross on early Thursday (which was the mid-point of the 14th of Nisan), which was the first day of Unleavened Bread (or Day of Preparation). Before sunset he died on the cross as the Passover Lamb of God and was then interred in the tomb, where his body remained for three days and three nights (while his soul, however, was in Sheol/Hades). The importance of this symmetry of dates is very critical, because of the alignment with the Exodus account in the Hebrew Bible, when Moses led the Israelites from the bondage of sin, and presented the Old Covenant 50 days later on the Feast of Weeks. That is, Jesus led Israel from the bondage of death, and presented the New Covenant 50 days later on the Feast of Pentecost. (Please click here.) The plain and normal reading of Scripture enables us to see these parallels in plain light.
Finally and not least important, we noted the confusion of the two "evenings" in the Hebrew Bible (and carried into the Christian New Testament) combined with the confusion between the first day of Unleavened Bread with the first day of the FEAST of Unleavened Bread. The confusion has led to the mistaken notion that Jesus was crucified on Friday, and, therefore very unfortunately uncouples the rich meanings and parallels of the Hebrew Bible with the Christian New Testament.